Feature: Al fresco dining (2022)

This is, believe it or not, the third edition of my guide to the best places to eat al fresco in Reading, and looking back on my previous guides to this subject, it’s safe to say that they’ve not aged as well as I might have liked.

From my Class of 2015, three of my choices have ceased trading and one of the others, the Allied Arms, has lost much of its appeal for al fresco dining since the Pizza Express next door closed down. It only really made the list because of the strangely luxurious experience of having a pint of Thatchers Gold in the beer garden with a Pollo Ad Astra from just down the road; it was, it occurs to me now, a gastronomic moment very much frozen in time and of its time, every bit as much as enjoying cocktails and a burger outside Santa Fe or sitting on the balcony at Dolce Vita.

My more recent version of this list, from 2019, hasn’t fared an awful lot better. Dolce Vita, of course, has closed, and I know some people in Reading mourn its loss as much as I do. But other places have dropped off my list because they’ve been surpassed: take Bhel Puri House, whose food you used to be able to eat in the Workhouse courtyard. And you still can, but the courtyard has been desecrated by the Mercure Hotel, who tore it up with a plan to put in some horrendous decking, were told to cease and desist by the council and left it half-done and completely fucked, one of Reading’s loveliest sunspots turned into a guano-encrusted perpetual building site. 

Some places didn’t make the cut this time because although the surroundings are still excellent, the food no longer lives up to them. Thames Lido is a wonderful place to sit and look at the pool but the food has always been inconsistent and they’ve managed to mislay two head chefs in less than a year (they now have a “restaurant director” instead, whatever that is). After one hit and miss meal too many – which is all the meals I’ve ever had there – it’s no longer a place I can recommend. 

But let’s focus on the positives: for my money there are more, and better, places to eat outside in Reading than ever before. Part of that is down to Covid, I suspect, and places wisely investing in Covid-proofing their restaurants or pubs as best they can. And some of it is just our good fortune that many of our newer establishments have put thought into this, just as many of them have put thought into the delivery experience. Places that have perfected eating in, eating outside and takeaway, which includes a handful of the places on this list, truly represent a triple threat. 

That means I have a bumper selection for you, a baker’s dozen of the best places in Reading to enjoy food and drink outdoors. With one notable exception they all serve their own food, and I think you have a decent span of restaurants, pubs and cafés, and of food at all price points. And best of all, they’ve been picked on merit rather than because they reviewed well on TripAdvisor or paid money to be featured, like other local publications I could name. So without further ado let’s get into it: I have a feeling a list like this could be especially handy this year, and for that matter in the hot summers yet to come.

1. Blue Collar Corner

This list is in alphabetical order, but either way I’m sure it will surprise few people to see Blue Collar Corner at the top of it. In the four short months since it opened, Glen Dinning’s permanent site on Hosier Street has already established itself as a Reading institution. And if claims that “it’s just like being in London” are a little brash and reductive it’s definitely true that the site, with its shipping containers, street food vendors, buzzing tokens telling you your dinner is ready and a well-stocked bar with many excellent Double-Barrelled beers (and the superb lager they brew exclusively for Blue Collar) feels like nowhere else Reading has seen, and like nowhere anywhere near Reading either for that matter.

Blue Collar has picked a mixture of the star players from its weekday markets to run permanent kitchens at the site, which means you can choose from pizza at Sarv’s Slice, bao buns from YouBao or the near-legendary fried chicken from Swindon’s Gurt Wings. The Taco Tree, an offshoot from Vegivores, completes the quartet. In truth when I’ve attended I’ve found it difficult to stay away from Gurt Wings’ incredible JFC (karaage-style fried chicken) with Lost In Translation, their gochujang and sriracha combo sauce. But Sarv’s Slice is also well worth trying – their carbonara pizza, in particular, knocked my socks off.

I suspect I’m far too old and shabby to make a night of it there, but it’s a great place for a sunny lunch at the weekend or an early evening dinner before sloping off to the pub, leaving the young and the beautiful to enjoy their cocktails. I feel I fit in far better at Blue Collar’s Wednesday and Friday markets, which earn an honorary mention on this list – Fink’s mezze box, with chicken shawarma and falafel (because why should you have to choose?) is a go-to there. Or you could join the seemingly infinite queue for Sharian’s jerk chicken: I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the people standing in the line at half-one have been waiting since midday.

Blue Collar Corner, 15 Hosier Street, RG1 7QL
https://www.bluecollarstreetfood.co.uk/blue-collar-corner

2. Buon Appetito

I rediscovered Buon Appetito last year, and it turned out to be one of my finds of 2021. But it’s this year that it’s become a proper happy place for me. It has fantastic outside space , and there’s an awful lot to be said for heading there after work, bagging one of their tables and waiting for your pizza to arrive.

It somehow feels, despite being on Chatham Street and a mere stone’s throw from the Oxford Road, that you could be in mainland Europe. Perhaps it’s the luminous orange glow of an Aperol Spritz bathed in sunshine, or maybe it’s the soundtrack of soft easy-listening cover versions of chart hits. Or it could just be the warmth of the welcome or that first bite of my favourite Reading pizza, all bubbled crust, capers and anchovies. Whatever it is, it adds up to something magical.

Best of all, unlike many places on this list, Buon Appetito is truly future-proof. It has cover and powerful heaters, and it will continue to be a great shout later in the year when the weather, as it inevitably will, turns to shit. Come to think of it, I had a distinctly agreeable al fresco meal in Buon Appetito last January, when anywhere else would have been inhospitable. One last thing: if it’s on the specials menu, save room for their brilliant pistachio tiramisu.

Buon Appetito, 146-148 Chatham Street, RG1 7HT
https://www.buonappetitoreading.co.uk

3. Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen (at the Butler)

Many years ago, I Love Paella (either at the Horn or during its halcyon days at the Fisherman’s Cottage, before the acrimonious parting of the ways) would have been a shoo-in for a list like this. Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen is very much its natural successor, a great example of a pub showing some imagination, getting a talented chef in and becoming much more than the sum of its parts.

Sitting under a parasol in the back garden of the Butler – also on Chatham Street, as it happens – nursing a pint of Neck Oil and devouring some jerk chicken dumplings was one of the best al fresco experiences I had last year, or any year for that matter. And that’s before you factor in the chicken wings with a dark rum glaze, the phenomenally deep, smoky jerk chicken or an infernally indulgent slab of macaroni pie. If you want to make someone in your life jealous, go there without them and send them photos: the picture above is from the last time my other half did precisely that. I was green with envy, but I had to applaud her: Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt and Stevie’s your chef.

Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen, The Butler, 85-91 Chatham Street, RG1 7DS
https://www.facebook.com/ChefStevieAnderson

4. The Collective

You might well expect me to put Geo Café on this list – the coffee is fantastic, the pastries are out of this world and the Orangery out the back is a lovely, quirky place to enjoy both those things. But, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I class the owners Keti and Zezva as friends so I will have to recuse myself for that reason. But in any event The Collective, at the other end of Caversham’s Church Street, fully deserves a spot on this list.

Their outside space is a beautiful, credible, grown-up piece of work and it creates an atmosphere which positively encourages you to linger, grab another coffee (and maybe one of their superb brownies) and just enjoy the experience of being part of a buzzing café culture not quite like anywhere else in Reading. I just came back from a holiday in Ghent where I went to a couple of fantastic cafés – they take coffee seriously there – with gorgeous, sophisticated outside space, and I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay The Collective than that it very much reminded me of them.

The thing to have there, if you ask me – and maybe you didn’t, but it’s my blog – is the French toast with bacon and maple syrup. But I’m long overdue a return visit to try out the chorizo ‘nduja hash, which sounds like a mixture of all the nicest things.

The Collective, 25 Church Road, Caversham, RG4 7AA
https://www.thecollectivecaversham.co.uk

5. The Last Crumb

Another terrific al fresco venue, the Last Crumb has really cemented its place in Caversham since it opened in 2019 and it has a lovely garden with benches and booths which catches the sun nicely. It might not have as extensive a range of drinks as some of Reading’s other venues, but they’ve done wonders with the outside space and it remains a great spot for a contemplative pint (especially of cider, where their range is a little more fun).

Food at the Last Crumb is not extensive: they’ve decided to do two things, burgers and pizza, and that’s pretty much it. But for what it’s worth they do both of them well and their pizzas are a pretty decent rival for the highly rated Papa Gee just down the hill. I think they still serve them on a metal bin lid which means they go cold quicker than they ought to, but on a scorching hot summer’s day, sitting outside, I imagine that won’t bother many people.

The Last Crumb, 76 Prospect Street, Caversham, RG4 8JN
https://dodopubs.com/locations/the-last-crumb/

6. London Street Brasserie

LSB: the great survivor and what the youth of today might refer to as the “OG” (although what would I know?) of Reading’s al fresco dining scene. It doesn’t have an awful lot of outside space, but what it does have is a classy, tranquil spot by the water and one of the town’s best sun traps. I ate on their terrace a couple of times last year and yes, I know it isn’t as cheap as it used to be. I know the set lunch is no longer the bargain it once was. I also know, believe me, that of any three dishes you eat there one will be great, one will be nice and one will be meh.

And yet it still has something. It still feels special to me, in a way the Lido has never managed, and authentic even when it’s not entirely at its best. It’s where I tend to go with the bits of my family who are even more determined to eat outside than I am, and the place has made several really happy memories for me since the pandemic began. Put it this way – it’s the only restaurant that’s made every single iteration of this list. I wouldn’t bet against it cropping up next time I write a piece like this, too.

London Street Brasserie, 2-4 London Street, RG1 4PN
https://www.londonstreetbrasserie.co.uk

7. The Lyndhurst

Will he ever stop going on about the Lyndhurst? you’re probably thinking to yourself. And yes, I’m sure one day I will. When their food stops being incredible and inventive and ridiculously good value. When they stop being curious about other cuisines and other restaurants, when they stop ordering food from other places, taking it apart, putting it back together and adding it to their menu, souped-up and completely unmissable.

True story: the Lyndhurst read my takeaway review of Osaka, ordered the karaage chicken I’d written about, enjoyed it and then decided to make their own version. It was absolutely incredible, some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had anywhere, and I enjoyed it for months until they took it off their menu. And then they brought it back recently and it’s even better than ever. I’ll stop going on about them when they stop doing things like that. I’ll stop going on about them when I order the same dish there twice and they haven’t improved it, subtly and iteratively, between visits. I’ll stop going on about them when their curry night isn’t the best way to spend a tenner on food and a pint in Reading on a Thursday night.

Until then, I’m afraid you have to put up with stuff like this. The Lyndhurst’s terrace seats maybe fourteen people at a push, but if you get a table there on a warm day – with a pint or a glass of their gorgeous Riesling, and a menu – you honestly feel like you’ve won at life. Next time you’re there, try the monkfish with Bombay potatoes before they take it off the menu. It’s a beauty.

The Lyndhurst, 88 Kings Road, RG1 4DG
https://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk/

8. The Nag’s Head

For my money the Nag’s is Reading’s finest beer pub, and for a long time I thought that was all that it was (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And that’s still the case – the keg selection is superb, and there’s always a great spread of beers from our local breweries, let alone fun stuff from further afield. But when I reviewed the food last year I was delighted to find that they’d given a lot of thought to it – a stripped-back, easy to execute menu that doesn’t involve burgers or fish and chips, or microwaves.

So instead you get brisket or pulled pork rolls, from the smoker which starts running early doors. Or toasted sandwiches from the Croque Shop, a Brighton business that the owners of the Nag’s liked so much that they asked them to supply their pub a long way from Sussex. There are sausage rolls, too, although nothing’s stopping you ordering some pork scratchings into the bargain, apart from possibly restraint or dignity. The Nag’s, Buon Appetito and Chef Stevie form a beautiful little triad, proving again that West Reading is where much of Reading’s interesting food developments are taking place.

The Nag’s Head, 5 Russell Street, RG1 7XD
http://www.thenagsheadreading.co.uk/

9. O Portugues

Just to prove that West Reading and Caversham don’t have the monopoly on great al fresco dining options, the next three choices are all from the east side. O Português, on the edge of Palmer Park, has a decent terrace and a menu that does its best to transport you to Lisbon. The menu can be challenging in places (don’t have the snails) but if you pick well you can be rewarded with some cracking food – from prego steak rolls honking with garlic to a vibrant salt cod salad singing with parsley and red peppers. One of my readers told me that one of the best ways to enjoy O Português is with their octopus salad, some bread to mop up and a cold pint of Super Bock on draft. Put like that, it sounds unimprovable.

O Português, 21 Wokingham Road, RG6 1LE
https://www.facebook.com/OPortuguesInTown

10. Park House

My most recent discovery to make this list is Park House, the University bar on campus. It’s always been one of my favourite places to grab a pint in the sunshine – either before or after a happy amble round the Harris Garden, which has become one of my very favourite parts of Reading. Their beer is ridiculously cheap and Double-Barrelled, Siren Craft, Phantom and Elusive are invariably represented, along with relatively local breweries from slightly further away.

But what’s changed this year is the introduction of a great, compact, sensibly priced menu using local suppliers and beef from the university’s own farm. It transforms it from a nice spot for a drink to somewhere you could happily settle in for a session and have an enjoyable meal into the bargain. The things to pick there are the smoked pork ribs, the excellent, clever and nicely balanced confit duck salad and more of the smoked pork ribs. Possibly with a chaser of the smoked pork ribs.

Park House, Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading, RG6 6UA
https://www.hospitalityuor.co.uk/bars-and-pubs/park-house/

11. Smash N Grab

Reading’s best burgers, for my money, can be had from a little shack on Cemetery Junction with a handful of outside tables. Husband and wife team Farooq and Uzma run Smash N Grab and despite almost packing it in earlier in the year they’ve decided to stick at it and are working hard on improving their outside space and expanding their menu.

I’m glad they’ve reconsidered, because their smashed burgers really are superb – beautifully done, deeply savoury things with fantastic texture and contrast. Smash N Grab are active on social media and have been frank about the challenge they face, with their neighbours and competitors Fat Twins building a huge structure outside what used to be the Granby Tavern to block their light and the view of the restaurant (seemingly without getting planning permission). So they need all the support they can get – and their burgers really do deserve a far wider audience.

Smash N Grab, 124 London Road, RG1 5AY
https://www.smashngrab.co.uk/

12. Tasty Greek Souvlaki

Another great example of restaurants as travel agents, Tasty Greek Souvlaki has made a huge contribution to Reading’s food scene in a short space of time since opening in 2020. And I really love sitting outside with a cold bottle of Fix (the glasses, frosted, are from the freezer) watching the world go by. The tables are seated side by side looking out on Market Place, which somehow makes the whole thing feel more Continental, and it has that brilliant effect where you know you’re in Reading, but you somehow feel elsewhere.

If you’re there in a pair or a four it’s really hard to beat the mixed grill, which is a cornucopia of meat – souvlaki, gyros, keftedes, pork belly and sausage – with something for everybody. But if you’re eating solo, the merida platter of crispy, salty gyros meat with chips, fluffy pitta and tzatziki is one of the best and best value meals for one you can find in Reading. And it’s a great place to dine solo: at some point I’ll put together an updated version of my feature on the best tables for one in Reading. When I do, expect Tasty Greek Souvlaki to be on it.

Tasty Greek Souvlaki, 20 Market Place, RG1 2EG
https://tastygreeksouvlaki.com/

13. The Castle Tap

The Castle Tap doesn’t have a menu per se: I think you can get a cheeseboard there, but that’s it. They have done a great job on their outside space in lockdown, like their neighbours the Nag’s Head, and it’s a brilliant place to enjoy a beer or a cider on a balmy evening (their beer list is compact but always has something interesting on it, and they put a lot of effort into their cider selection).

And yet last year, the Castle Tap was the site of many of my favourite al fresco meals. Because to encourage you to stay there and keep enjoying their wonderful space, rather than sloping off to the likes of Harput Kebab, the management actively encourages you to order from Deliveroo and eat it in their gorgeous garden. They even, if you ask them nicely, give you the postcode for the back of the pub on Anstey Road, so your rider can almost drop it to your waiting table. A tub of chilli chicken from Kokoro or a red pork curry from ThaiGrr!, eaten in the sun with a great beer in front of you and the promise of more to come: little is finer than that.

The Castle Tap, 120 Castle Street, RG1 7RJ
https://thecastletap.co.uk

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